In 1907, Dr. Anderson Abbott, an African Canadian member of the integrated John S. Knowlton Post, promised his fellow comrades that the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) would be remembered as the great movement of the twentieth century in the “establishment of universal brotherhood.” Historians have traditionally considered statements such as this as mere hyperbole. The era following Reconstruction is conventionally depicted as a time of deteriorating conditions for most African Americans. Lynching, disenfranchisement, and race-based segregation all symbolized the rolling back of promises held out by emancipation. Even in the GAR, the largest postwar veterans’ association, black veterans faced effective segregation within the organization. The standard account of the GAR, Stuart McConnell’s Glorious Contentment (1992), argues that black veterans were virtually absent in most of the GAR and when they did join, it was almost always as a member of a black post.
In The Won Cause, a concise and provocative book, Barbara Gannon challenges this scholarship and argues that the transcendent bonds of “comradeship,” forged by the shared suffering and sacrifices of the Union soldiers, allowed the GAR to create and sustain an interracial organization unique at that time. Indeed, the very color-blind [End Page 121] records kept by local posts have hidden the number of integrated posts. Gannon’s extensive research through the local GAR records, black newspapers, and regional archives has allowed her to identify 467 integrated posts, more than double that of the all-black posts (p. 222). While many of the integrated posts had only a handful of black members, even that, in the climate of the time, was remarkable. Applicants to a GAR post were admitted only after all members, voted and one negative vote in ten (later two negative votes) meant a rejection. If black veterans were admitted, it was only with the approval of a majority of the white members. While the GAR was certainly not free of prejudice, Gannon builds a persuasive case that black members received a degree of equality and agency within the GAR not possible in any other contemporary social organization. This was so, Gannon argues, because their wartime service created a transcendent bond—comradeship—that helped white members put aside, if only temporarily, their existing prejudices.
The book does not purport to be a comprehensive study of the GAR nor does it discuss in detail its early partisan nature or its later work to secure pensions for Union veterans. Rather, Gannon focuses on the ways in which “comradeship” among black and white veterans helped forge a Civil War memory of a “Won Cause” to counter the “Lost Cause” that dominated much of the twentieth-century thought. Gannon uses her sources thoughtfully and carefully qualifies the interracial outlook of GAR members. She makes clear that the sense of comradeship that led white veterans to support black veterans within the GAR did not automatically lead the white veterans to identify with the larger issues facing all African Americans. In cases that did not involve black veterans, GAR departments declined to protest acts of violence and discrimination directed at black civilians. Comradeship and prejudice could coexist because “in the white veterans’ minds, African Americans who had not served did not deserve the same recognition” (p. 169).
The Won Cause will force historians to reconsider many aspects of late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century race relations and to [End Page 122] listen more carefully to the voices of the veterans. Certainly Barbara Gannon has persuaded me to take more seriously the language and ideas used by men such as Anderson Abbott.
Richard Reid teaches history at the University of Guelph in Guelph, Ontario. He has written and edited numerous works on African American soldiers during the Civil War, including Freedom for Themselves: Black North Carolina Soldiers and Their Families in the Civil War (2008).